Some of rock’s most iconic solos and riffs come from Slash and his signature Les Paul. It’s not his fault Sweet Child of Mine is so overplayed in Guitar Centre, but it is his fault that, outside of the hits, a lot of his composition is pretty standard. At worst his chugging riffs are muddy and uninteresting, in stark contrast to his few flourishes of excellence.
His personal, extremely weird, and off-putting politics aside, Clapton does have some tremendous bits and pieces. He draws a lot of his inspiration and style from the blues, and while he’s a talented soloist, his songwriting comes up short. Filler tracks like The Shape You’re In litter his albums, and there are sadly no better words for them than hacky and cliché.
This leather-clad Swede is likely the greatest shredder of all time. He flurries through intricate mode mixtures at blistering speed and still makes it sound melodic and structured, which is an astonishing achievement. He’s never formally studied music either, which is no mark against the man, but it does mean that neo-classical is really all he does, no matter the genre he’s tasked with.
While White and his numerous musical projects have released some great pop-rock, as a player he is somewhat looked down upon by his peers. His riffs aren’t anything to sneeze at, clearly, he has a good sense of rhythm in the lower register, but when he starts wailing around the higher end of the neck it can sound… unintentionally dissonant.
Billie Joe Armstrong
Clearly punk was never about flashy technical skills, the instruments were an extension of the artist and used as an anger management tool. Still, Green Day’s music was often very guitar-driven, and plenty of their tracks at least attempt a guitar solo. A lot of his riffs and melodies have sounded the same since American Idiot.
To be completely fair to the man’s legacy, his 70s, and 80s work was a phenomenal swirl of prog, rock, Latin, and soul. Around the 90s he started losing his edge, and a desire for commercial appeal stripped him of the eccentricity he was admired for. He kept his feel for timing, but his repetitive and dated style hasn’t aged gracefully.
It’s a shame The Edge has a stage name that intense when his playing has always been pretty void of character. The sound was certainly impressive, he sometimes overindulged in pedals and post-production, but usually, the moment calls for it. His brass-tack playing lacks any sense of grit or grip beyond chugging the songs along.
Most guitarists and experimental music fans are familiar with Mr. Head and his bucket-related antics. He rarely sits still musically, having made a name for himself in lo-fi, heavy metal, and industrial circles, but that’s what makes him difficult to gauge as a player. He’s versatile and content staying in his niche, the slippery serpent.
Young is probably the oldest and most established guitarist still working in the industry, and he’s still hammering out the same tired riffs. The charm of AC/DC’s riffs were simple voicings. Nothing was ever too complex, so it sounded good when a beginner cranked up the distortion and let the open strings ring. The “Young” dog needs some new tricks.
Stevie Ray Vaughn
Nobody can call Vaughn a bad guitarist, he’s always been very apparently skilled. The list of accolades and GOAT labels under his belt are a little questionable though… Vaughn didn’t bring anything new at the heights of his ’80s stardom, coasting on well-established blues foundations without giving much back.
While Richards is a legendary name in rock and roll, his half-rhythm and half-lead style is weighted in one direction. He has an incredible sense of time and swing, enough so that even arthritis barely slows him down. His leads, however, even in early Stones, were mostly about padding out the already excellent tracks.
McCready isn’t often a name that pops up on either the best or worst lists, but as one of Grunge’s leading players, he’s worth examining. Pearl Jam had a much better sense of melody and clarity than a lot of their contemporaries, and while some of their riffs and songwriting are stand-out, all too often the gritty, sludgy playing detracts from their sound.
Dragonforce are known almost exclusively for their long, frighteningly fast solos. Li gained a reputation as a bit of a poseur when they hit commercial success thanks, to some less-than-stellar live shows that went viral, but he’s certainly not THAT bad! Quantity trumps quality across most of his work, with rare moments of genius buried inside simple (but speedy) scale routines.
As one of Britain’s premiere axmen, Blackmore is a pretty well-regarded name for his work in Deep Purple and beyond. Every guitarist knows at least one of Blackmore’s riffs, and while that certainly stands for something, it isn’t everything. He has exceptional foundations, but rarely does the ceiling get a glimpse.
Nobody wants to admit the Eagles aren’t quite as good as their reputation would imply, and fewer want to admit Walsh’s playing has no sense of originality. He and his bandmates wrote some quintessential dad rock, which might have been the brief but eventually, you have to take off the Oakleys and see the world as it is – Beyond Hotel California.
Throughout the 80s-2000s, Thrash’s big three were engaged in a war of palm-muted chest-beating. Hammet came out on top in terms of popularity and skill, while King’s larger-than-life, aggressive performance style kept Slayer with a suite of dedicated fans. Beyond the admittedly tricky pinch harmonics, King’s chocolate crown melts beneath the lights a little bit, but Slayer doesn’t do sweet.
Limp Bizkit’s infectious, in-your-face energy wasn’t the result of any one band member in particular. They all knew how to make the most catchy, annoying noise possible on their chosen instruments, and in that way, Boreland was an efficiency machine with one setting: Chug. Chug all night long, chug no matter what, chug in the face of death.
It’s unfair to say KISS was entirely gimmick-driven, when you strip away the theatrics, there is still some excellent (if completely edge-less) 80’s rock in there. Frehley’s playing leans a little too heavily on the idea that it’s a KISS song, meaning riffs that go in one ear and out the other, and solos that wish they were played by Neal Schon.
Mustain is one of the rare metal-rhythm guitarists who truly put their brand on the often maligned role. He wrote and played dissonance with a fantastic ear, not content with the sound of your standard perfect 5th or open position chord. Unfortunately, that tension rarely comes with any release, which can make him hard to bear for an entire album.
Wylde’s work with Black Label Society and Ozzy Osbourne are great examples of how, sometimes, less is more. Not every riff needs two squealies per bar, brother. His spin on Crazy Train shows this, the original riff is grave and foreboding with its pumping rhythm, and Wylde turns it into a showcase of how strong his thumb is.
Without Clarence Clearwater and their subsequent revival, pop-country playing would be a very different landscape. God, how wonderful things could have been… He’s always around incredible guitar solos, which makes you wish just once he’d just provide a little countermelody at least. Maybe just try a different setting on the amp, because his clean tones aren’t worth writing country home for.
After parting ways with Night Ranger, Gillis dedicated his life to creating the most earnestly awful rock guitar snippets prime-time TV has ever heard. It wasn’t just the older ESPN and Fox Sports viewers that were subject to this nonsense, as he often wrote equally saccharine, cocksure melodies for video games.
The Allman Brothers band bridged the gap between country blues and anthemic-sounding, guitar-driven rock. There’s plenty in there to enjoy, like Duane’s skillful slide guitar chicken-plucking, but when he lends his sound to other player’s work he rarely brings out the same flair. It’s a real shame his life ended so early.
Another rock icon who sadly passed away before truly reaching their peak, Darrel’s filthy tones gave Pantera a savage sound. They weren’t good filthy, mind you, in fact, a lot of the time his tone was the very issue, forcing an amateur-sounding distortion onto lines that deserved better. It’s the same issue that faces his signature Razorback guitar, it’s just way too loud.
Maybe deep down, the guitar is just a dad instrument. It’s the only way to explain the veneration certain older performers receive, and Gilmore probably gets the bulk of that “They were better in my day” energy directed his way. Pink Floyd has some stinkers, and a lot of them are thanks to Gilmore phoning it in, see; Wish You Were Here.
Many publications list Moore as one of the all-time best. That’s mostly thanks to his incredibly diverse career, having touched on blues, rock and roll, country, and 80’s glam ballads. The key word there is touched on, as Moore never does anything but dip his toe in the genre aesthetics, without ever developing his sound and identity to contribute to the field.
Eddie Van Halen
Rarely do artists ever become synonymous with a single technique on an instrument, and while Eddie didn’t invent tapping he certainly helped develop its sound and utility in modern rock. He leaned on it a little heavy at times, and it’s not like people listen to Eruption for any reason but to learn a cool 12-bar phrase.
Moore is still releasing solo work, but he’s best known for his time in the British hard rock band UFO. He was actually born in Delaware and brought a very Americanized rock sound to the group to mixed results. He felt more at home playing with Alice Cooper, where his very old-school sensibilities were part of the kitsch.
Michael Angelo Batio
Batio ruled the guitar world for a very brief time, doing so with speed, precision, and as many necks as he could fit on a guitar. He thought he was elevating shred with his gimmick, which was entertaining and sometimes brilliant, but lacked staying power. He’s also like the anti-Steve Vai in terms of guitar faces, Batio is still a rock.
Buxton was one in a long line of guitarists to play for Alice Cooper, though he’s considered the best among them. He was with the outfit before it became a literal outfit for frontman Alice Cooper, but even their early work is not worthy of the reputation they (he) would gain. He probably is the best of the bunch, though.
Cheap Trick has some of the best radio-friendly 80s rock you can find. They’re catchy and have enough bite to keep their low-key energy from getting bland, and Nielsen had an easy time with that. Slightly too easy, meaning he never pushed any boundaries. Nielsen clocked in at nine, did exactly his job, then hit the bar.
Michael Lee Firkins
In the same way, Herman Li is guilty of using power-metal shorthand to make solos seem much more intricate than they are, Firkins commits the same crime to country music. His dexterity and consistency are outstanding but make for a country blur that’s over before it’s had time to develop into something solid.
Many remember Ramirez for his turn as guitarist and co-songwriter for Marylin Manson. He was core to the Golden Age of Grotesque album and while it was certainly one of the band’s more listenable albums, Twiggy’s stringy distortion and simple arrangements leave a big gap in the production. His half-grunge half-metal fusion just doesn’t blend well.
As a pioneer of redneck jazz, Gatton often gets at least a nod in plenty of online lists. He has a similar sound to Firkins, taking country strings like the banjo and acoustic guitar, and classic fingerpicking rhythms to shoehorn America’s favorite homeland melodies into something more experimental. Hence, his place here.
Nugent is known for many things, such as his distinctive vocal range and manic performance style. He’s mostly been a frontman for hire, turning up in bands like The Amboy Dukes and Meat Loaf, and even appeared on Miami Vice one time. He hasn’t changed at all since the 70s, in style, execution, or taste.
Most of Chastain’s work has been behind the scenes, as a producer and owner of Leviathan Records and Diginet Music. His own music covers everything from power metal and thrash to neo-classical, but it’s the neo-classical that gets in the way. He over-complicated solos with ornamentation that hadn’t been used since the 1700s.
Huff got his start in the Tennessee music scene, which means a lot of his early work is Christian rock, and not even the secret cool kind like Kansas did. With a wealth of experience in classical composition, Huff certainly has a good ear for melody. His spaced-out distortion makes for some huge-sounding tracks, at the cost of an empty listening experience.
Autograph is best known for their 1984 hit Turn Up the Radio, and Lynch’s flashy playing helped grip even those just in it for the hair. He pledged to himself that he would master the guitar after the passing of Jimi Hendrix, but his playing seems more inspired by Van Halen and Batio. The technicality was often impressive, but he didn’t offer much beyond that.
Europe would have been left in the ’80s where they belong, where it not for The Final God Damn Countdown. To give credit to Marcelo, that wasn’t the height of his technical skill, and apparently, he wrote the solo in 15 minutes, but even Europe’s fan-favourite tracks fall short of even the most mediocre schlock the decade pumped out.
All a guitarist has to do to be considered an all-time legend is invent time-travel and do some grade 6 shredding until you get offered a signature model. Both Scorpions and UFO gave Sheckner a vehicle for some of the most boring “classic” rock playing outside a Springsteen concert. Dean sure knows how to pick them.